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Vermont Cliff Ecology with Bob Zaino

Vermont Cliff Ecology
by Bob Zaino, Ecologist & Climber

Climbers have been seeking out Vermont’s cliffs for about one hundred years. They are new to the game. Botanists have been at it for nearly two centuries.

In 1845, Alphonso Wood scrambled around the cliffs of Lake Willoughby, and found several plants—including yellow mountain saxifrage and purple mountain saxifrage—that are extremely rare in New England. He was the first to report rare species on the state’s cliffs. Others soon followed.

The early botanists were motivated first and foremost by the hunt for plants, but they convey a spirit that climbers might recognize. Years after the fact, Cyrus Pringle recounted a day in 1876 when he searched for a rare fern on the cliffs below the summit of Camel’s Hump: “On that day,” he recalled, “I clambered, I believe, over every shelf of its great southern precipice and peered into every fissure amongst the rocks.”

Continued scientific study (and clambering) has only buttressed what the early botanists knew: Vermont’s cliffs are hot spots for rare plants. But botanists and ecologists today look at more than just rare plants. Cliffs support fascinating natural communities. And while much of Vermont has been shaped by agriculture, logging, or development, cliffs are still largely undisturbed. They are old growth ecosystems.

Ecologists classify Vermont’s cliffs into four natural community types, broadly defined by climate and rock chemistry:

Temperate Acidic Cliffs are the natural community most familiar to Vermont climbers. The West Bolton cliffs, the Dome, Prospect Rock, and Marshfield Ledge are all Temperate Acidic Cliffs. Stunted red oaks and white pines are common, as are rock tripe lichens. These warm and mostly dry cliffs support only a few rare plant species; longleaf bluet, with its small pale pink flowers, is one.

Temperate Calcareous Cliffs are, for climbers, often choss. When rocks are rich in calcium (“calcareous”), they support specialized plants—including ferns, flowers, and grass-like plants called sedges—that can’t live elsewhere. So, these cliffs support many rare plants, including purple cliff-brake. While not rare, twisted and gnarled northern white cedar trees on these cliffs can be hundreds of years old. Lone Rock Point is a Temperate Calcareous Cliff.

Boreal Acidic Cliffs are found in cold and high-elevation places, and their rocks have little calcium. Bone Mountain and Black Mountain are good examples. Red spruce and balsam fir are characteristic trees. Fragrant fern is a calcium-dependent rare plant found occasionally on these cliffs. It grows in cracks where groundwater seeps out, providing a source of calcium on otherwise acidic rock.

Boreal Calcareous Cliffs are cold, often wet, and rich in calcium. Smuggler’s Notch, along with Mount Pisgah and Mount Hor at Lake Willoughby, are Vermont’s most dramatic examples. Others include the Great Cliff at Mount Horrid and the Bald Hill slabs. Boreal Calcareous Cliffs support dozens of rare plant species. These include fragrant fern, and the distinctive white mountain saxifrage (named for its flower color, not the New Hampshire mountains). Single-spike sedge, an arctic species at the extreme southern edge of its range here, is one of several rare grasses and sedges found on these cliffs.

Vermont’s Boreal Calcareous Cliffs are exceptional. No cliffs in neighboring states match their biological diversity or abundance of rare plants. One must travel to the Gaspé Peninsula, or farther north, to find equivalent natural communities.

As climbers, we have a special role in protecting all these natural communities. Use care to avoid damaging any plants or eroding soils. When establishing new routes, focus on naturally clean rock. Finally, be especially mindful in places like Smuggler’s Notch and Willoughby, where ice and mixed climbing routes are often on wetter, more vegetated portions of cliffs.

And on your next climb, perhaps you’ll glance at some flowers or sedges, and marvel at the unlikely link between 19th century botanists and modern climbers.

Bob Zaino is an ecologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, and a co-author of the second edition of Wetland, Woodland, Wildland: A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont.

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